If you're losing your hearing, you might find yourself struggling to communicate. Hearing aids can help give you back confidence and independence.
What do hearing aids do?
Hearing aids are designed to amplify sounds so that they are loud enough, but not uncomfortably loud. The amplification volume depends on the type and degree of hearing loss you have.
Hearing aids amplify all sounds, but are particularly designed to help you to hear sounds that make up speech better.
Sounds are made up of different pitches or 'frequencies'. Hearing aids amplify each pitch by different amounts, because when you have a hearing loss, you usually hear some frequencies more easily than others.
Older people usually find the highest frequencies the hardest to hear - such as birds singing or a high pitched doorbell.
There are many different models of hearing aid, catering for all types of hearing loss. Hearing aids are available either through the National Health Service (NHS), or privately from a hearing aid dispenser.
In some areas of England you may have more choice over who provides your NHS audiology care for free under the Any Qualified Provider Scheme (AQP).
This was introduced by the department of Health in April 2012 and means that NHS, private providers and third sector organisations can deliver certain NHS services providing they meet NHS standards of quality and care, prices and contracts.
This includes adult audiology services If AQP is in your area and you meet the required criteria (which can vary from area to area). You may be able to choose which service your GP refers you to and all care and hearing aids you may need will remain free.
Types of hearing aids
There are a number of different types of hearing aids to choose from, although not all will necessarily be suitable for you.
Behind-the-ear aids (BTE)
These types of aids are worn with an ear mould made especially for you, which not only feed sounds through into your ear but also keep the hearing aid in place, over or behind your ear. There are models of BTE hearing aids to suit nearly all types and degrees of hearing loss.
Some behind the ear models are fitted into the ear with smaller thin tubes that have a small soft ear piece attached to the end; rather than an earmould. These are called open fit hearing aids. These are suitable for people with mild to moderate hearing loss and help provide a more natural sound as well as being more discrete. They are available both through the NHS and privately.
Another type called a receiver in the canal or receiver in the ear hearing aid is similar to an open fit hearing aid, however a tiny loudspeaker is held in place with the soft ear piece. There are different types of receiver in the canal models for varying degree of hearing loss; sometimes for a more sever hearing loss the tiny loud speaker will need to be held in place with an ear mould. These are available in some NHS services and are available privately.
Some people prefer these types of aids since they fit right into your ear, rather than behind it. These aids may be individually moulded to fit your own ear or may be modular - where a standard hearing aid is clipped to a custom-made hearing mould.
The smaller style, which fits right inside your ear canal, is not usually suitable if you are severely deaf.
Although these type of aids are still available both through the NHS and privately, they are less commonly used than the behind-the-ear and in-the-ear aids. They consist of a box about the size of a matchbox, which you clip to your belt or pocket, with a lead connecting it to an earphone and earmould. They are more cumbersome and less discreet than other types of aids but, because of their size, have large switches that are easier to operate and they may provide higher levels of amplification.
Digital hearing aids
Digital hearing aids use more advanced technology than the older analogue aids. They can be more precisely set up to suit your individual pattern of hearing loss.
They also process sounds to suit various listening situations - many adjust automatically. They are better at filtering out background noise. They may be behind-the-ear or in-the-ear aids. They are available both through the NHS for free and can be bought privately.
How much help will I get from hearing aids?
Hearing aids will not restore your hearing to normal, or 'cure' your deafness. They are simply an 'aid to hearing'. When you use a hearing aid for the first time, everyday sounds may seem quite loud. It could take you a couple of months to get used to hearing sounds with your hearing aid. If you have any problems during this initial period, you should always return to the person who supplied you with the aid, for further advice.
You will probably find that your hearing aid is more helpful in some circumstances than others. You will need to experiment. Hearing aids are most useful in quiet surroundings, when you are talking to only one or two people at a time. Background noise, such as music or other people talking, may interfere with what you are trying to hear.
However, public places such as theatres and stations often have 'loop' systems fitted. Loop systems can help you to hear what is being said on stage, or spoken into the counter microphone through your hearing aid, without picking up unwanted background noise. A special sign lets you know when a loop system is installed. All public phones are also fitted with a tiny loop.
You can only use a loop if you are able to switch your hearing aid to a special 'T' setting. With newer models of hearing aids the loop is usually within the programme settings and can be activated by a switch or push button on the back of your hearing aids. Almost all NHS aids have this setting, but some aids do not. Ask your audiologist about this before you get or buy your hearing aids.